By Robert Wallace
Back before the election, I summed up my view of Barack Obama’s campaign by calling it “The Biggest Con Job in American History.” The reasons for this are simple: 60 percent of Americans view themselves as conservatives and only 36 percent self-identify as liberal. If you do the math, this means that for Obama to win the election with 53% of the vote, more than one in five conservatives who voted cast their ballot for Obama.
Why would conservatives vote for Obama? Perhaps a sense of history outweighed politics. Perhaps they simply didn’t realize how astoundingly liberal Barack Obama’s record was. Most likely it was both. A pre-election Rasmussen poll found that 27 percent of Americans viewed Obama as “a political moderate.” Considering that, now you know why over 20 percent of American conservatives voted for Obama: the benefit was being part of something historical and the cost was mitigated by the mistaken belief that he was a centrist.
The problem with this scheme has always been what to do after the election. In an ordinary con, once you get the goods you skedaddle, but Obama has to stick around for 4 years and actually govern. Not just with rhetoric, but with actions: signing or vetoing bills, issuing executive statements, and so on and so forth. And he wants to get re-elected. And the powerful folks who have invested their time, money, and careers in him want him to get re-elected, too. This presents a dilemma for Obama — stick with his radical roots, or make his conversion to the mainstream genuine.
John Meacham, writing for Newsweek back in October of 2008, saw this problem clearly when he gave his article “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Blue” the subtitle: “America remains a center-right nation—a fact that a President Obama would forget at his peril.” He wrote:
But history, as John Adams once said of facts, is a stubborn thing, and it tells us that Democratic presidents from FDR to JFK to LBJ to Carter to Clinton usually wind up moving farther right than they thought they ever would, or they pay for their continued liberalism at the polls. Should Obama win, he will have to govern a nation that is more instinctively conservative than it is liberal—a perennial reality that past Democratic presidents have ignored at their peril.
Like many Americans, I decided to make the most of the election results. I figured that Obama would take Meacham’s advice (many others said similar things), and that perhaps even if his record was liberal he would turn over a new leaf in the White House. This kind of optimism, combined with the very genuine historical significance of his inauguration, pushed his poll numbers to great heights. Immediately following the inauguration, in fact, they were up above 80 percent. They rapidly began to decline, however, and while you’d still hear about his healthy polls (in the low to mid 60s last time I checked) the decline wasn’t often mentioned. Likewise, skyrocketing negative numbers were often omitted. And the poll numbers were seldom put in historical perspective where (at this point in the presidency) Obama’s numbers are dead average.
For a president to go from national symbol of unity to merely average in such a short amount of time means that something changed. What was it?
Obama started actually governing, that’s what.
First, there was the long string of Obama appointees with tax troubles. As public attention turned to these questionable appointments, several had to jump ship. What’s worse, even journalists took note of the fact that Obama–for all this rhetoric about cleaning up Washington–was appointing primarily the exact lobbyists he promised to avoid.
Then, there was the amateur hour embarrassment of Gordon Brown’s reception at the White House. No formal press conference and disastrously mismatched gifts induced cringes here in America and indignation in the UK. The Hillary Clinton “Russian reset button” snafu occurred at roughly the same time, and hardly helped matters.
His executive orders on social issues have similarly gone over like lead balloons. One of his first acts was to overturn Bush restrictions on federal funding for abortions overseas. As a Gallup poll noted, this proved to be a spectacularly unpopular move, garnering support from just 35% of Americans. More recently, he rolled out his executive order on embryonic stem cell research at a conference which noted American columnist–and embryonic stem cell research supporter–Charles Krauthammer not only refused to attend, but then subsequently panned in a devastating critique. So far he’s managed to largely keep out of the press the accompanying executive order which undercut federal funding for embryonic stem cell research alternatives that are more immediately promising and less ethically controversial.
Then, there are the embarrassing reversals of campaign rhetoric. During the debates, Obama slammed Arizona Sen. John McCain for a healthcare plan that would remove the tax-exempt status of employee health care premiums. Now Obama’s administration has quietly begun raising this exact option themselves, prompting NPR to interview a smug McCain about the story.
More than any of these things, however, it was Obama’s failure to address the economic crisis that most alienated him from everyday Americans. Obama’s promise-the-world attitude was successful during the campaign, but Americans are increasingly wondering why he has this obsession with healthcare, energy, and education while the treasury department is still running on a skeleton crew. Blaming everything on George W. Bush got old quickly, especially when populist fiascos like the AIG bonuses occurred entirely under Obama’s watch from start to finish.
His aloof manner of speaking, over-reliance on TelePrompTers, and increasingly sharp tone when responding to those rare probing questions from journalists all contribute to the general feeling that Obama has his own agenda. His reckless spending–which the Congressional Budget Office has projected to run nearly $1 trillion deficits each year for the next decade–has spooked even moderates and given old-school fiscal conservatives sudden relevance and credibility. More importantly, they highlight the fact that whatever Obama is up to, it’s not merely fixing the economy. As Rahm Emanual and Hillary Clinton have been fond of saying recently: “Never let a crisis go to waste.”
All of these factors have led to a steady decline in Obama’s popularity, a bleeding out which his increasingly boring press conferences are showing a decreasing ability to rectify. The celebrity is starting to wear thin, and Americans (finally) are starting to ask questions.
And, just as Americans and the media (shockingly) have started to ask questions, it looks like Obama is intent on answering them. And because of this I believe his popularity trend is about to turn a corner. And not in a good way. We’re talking about a shift in decline from “steady” to “precipitous,” from feather to lead balloon.
It’s stories like this one from the Washington Examiner which may prove to be the last straw for a conservative America:
It was nearly two weeks ago that the House of Representatives, acting in a near-frenzy after the disclosure of bonuses paid to executives of AIG, passed a bill that would impose a 90 percent retroactive tax on those bonuses. Despite the overwhelming 328-93 vote, support for the measure began to collapse almost immediately. Within days, the Obama White House backed away from it, as did the Senate Democratic leadership. The bill stalled, and the populist storm that spawned it seemed to pass.
But now, in a little-noticed move, the House Financial Services Committee, led by chairman Barney Frank, has approved a measure that would, in some key ways, go beyond the most draconian features of the original AIG bill. The new legislation, the “Pay for Performance Act of 2009,” would impose government controls on the pay of all employees — not just top executives — of companies that have received a capital investment from the U.S. government. It would, like the tax measure, be retroactive, changing the terms of compensation agreements already in place. And it would give Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner extraordinary power to determine the pay of thousands of employees of American companies.
As WhoRunsGov.com summarizes, when New York Times reporter Peter Baker asked President Obama, point blank, “Are you a socialist?” Obama’s response was largely to dismiss the question. He later called the paper back, explaining that he had trouble believing the question had been “entirely serious.” Sometimes people laugh off a question because it’s just so silly, but the other reason for dismissing a query with a chuckle is if you’ve got no real answer. Or, at least, no answer you want to give.
The fact is that with every additional day in office President Obama looks more and more like what he truly is, an extremely left-leaning ideologue, and less and less like the pragmatic centrist the American people thought they elected. And–because of previous administration blunders and the overall economic downturn–Americans are in a very skeptical mood these days. They’re going to be asking more and more questions, and they are not going to like the answers they find.
Obama appeared so unstoppable and politically deft that his political bumbling and incompetence since taking office have me wonder if there really has been some kind of Parent Trap identical twins shenanigans, or if the persona of Obama as unifying, post-partisan centrist was never more than a journalistic pipe-dream to begin with. Maybe the oratory was truly TelePrompTed. Maybe he never was the great politician he seemed to be. Or maybe–as many have begun to wonder–it is hubris that is leading him to disregard reality.
In either case, his disturbingly reckless and increasingly feckless attempt to radically reshape America is increasingly going to put him at odds with his own disenchanted electorate. It’s time for Obama to either pull back, or risk going so far that he earns a significant and damaging backlash.
Robert Wallace has been writing for America’s Right since December 2008.